The Titanic Sisters

Hope and Despair aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage to America (Ireland, New York, Texas; 1911 – 1913): Despite a foreboding plot with fateful twists and turns, Irish-born Patricia Falvey’s fourth historical novel will make you feel good. Because at its heart is discovering the sweetness of love when you haven’t had much, or any.  

Through two fictional Irish sisters, Nora and Delia Sweeney, The Titanic Sisters humanizes the suffering that happened when a supposedly unsinkable, luxurious British ocean liner, the RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in the Nova Scotia Sea. We know one sister made it to America’s shores; the other listed as one of 1,500 passengers missing.       

Mysteries, secrets, and lies abound, starting with the hook that keeps you turning pages in this briskly moving novel. Which of the Sweeney sisters made it onto a lifeboat and lives to tell her story?   

Like Nora and Delia, Falvey immigrated to America from Northern Ireland. She was twenty, so is Nora; Delia is eighteen. They came from Kilcross, barely a village, in Donegal County. Falvey left home all alone. For all intents and purposes Nora and Delia did too as they were alienated from each other so they barely saw each other on the ship. Nora is her mother’s favorite, Delia the black sheep to no fault of her own. Born a twin, her brother died two minutes after childbirth and her mother blamed her for his death, treating her like a farmhand as her boy would have been. Nora is treated like a princess to the extent a poor farm family can eke out a living on “rocky soil” at the “tip of northwest Ireland.”

The physical appearance and personality of the two sisters matched their mother’s you-can-do-nothing-right emotional abuse of Delia (their submissive father quietly loved her) versus her you-can-do-nothing-wrong adoration of vivacious Nora. With her “hair as dark as turf” and “sure of her place in the world,” leaving “fair-haired and gray-eyed” Delia terribly lonely. She found solace in books that inspired dreams of travel and romance, and when perched on “a group of rocks, bleached white and smooth” gazing out on the pounding, wide-open Atlantic Ocean.      

The novel opens a year before the Titanic set sails when it was being built in Belfast. Life is never the same for the Sweeneys when a “rare” letter addressed to the mother arrives postmarked from America, making it already “important.” The letter informs her that her niece has died, and that her Irish husband, Aidan O’Hanlon, the writer, needs a governess for his only child: seven-year-old, Lily who has not said a word since her mother died. Soon we learn they live in Manhattan, not on the Lower East Side or Hell’s Kitchen where waves of Irish immigrants lived, but on the wealthy streets of the Upper East Side. Both sisters fantasize their mother will choose them, although there’s no way their mother will pick Delia. The letter includes money for a first-class cabin on the elegant ship, but soon Delia gets a break to go onboard too for a lowly job awaiting her. That angers Nora who won’t be able to dine and dance with the upper-class since the one ticket was exchanged for two in third-class berths, highlighting social class differences as well as Nora’s selfishness and total of regard for her sister. Nora and Delia are dreamers, Nora setting her sights on grandeur while Delia yearns to be free from the misery of her mother.

About 80 pages in, you’ll know which sister miraculously survived among the 700 passengers who did, and which sister is missing. Like so much else in the plotting, the telling reveals spoilers. So this review leaves out plenty, aims to give you some flavor and looks at the many themes and emotions depicted, seamlessly and splendidly blending fiction with history.

The author describes the Titanic as both a “Ship of Hope” and a “Ship of Despair.” Which reminded me of a recent article about a different type of catastrophe, environmental, one in which the journalist lost his brother and niece to a California mudslide asking, “Isn’t hope essential?” because “despair is paralyzing.” This is a novel of Hope and Despair. 

The range of those emotions runs the gamut, starting with the terror inside the sinking Titanic. There’s also a poor immigrant’s rootlessness, homesickness, sadness, and survivor’s guilt. Does she end up working someplace she feels comfortable, accepted, and useful? Do caring and loving souls enter into the picture? The novel touches and engages us as it feels authentic, making the fate of two imagined sisters real. The prose is sprinkled with a “wee” bit of Irish words, like “she’s a quare one for the craic.” “Tis” for you to look up!   

Aidan is the grieving widower in his thirties. Charismatic with his penetrating “dark, blue eyes,” a gentleman wonderfully devoted to his daughter Lily, who inherited his blue eyes but hers are more “wary.” She’s a heartbreaker. At their house near St. Patrick’s Church on Fifth Avenue, there’s also an endearing older housekeeper, a dreadful, jealous young maid, and an intimidating, vengeful father-in-law. Which means there’s pain and control amidst the elegance, parental love, and goodness. What’s also here is the budding sexual chemistry between an employer and his employee. Aidan is someone who doesn’t take kindly to people who don’t tell the truth. His morality sets in motion the ups and downs of a delightful romance. The reader knows he has a tender heart, but has trouble expressing it and is blinded by his righteousness.  

At times this old-fashioned yet highly relevant immigrant novel has a nostalgic feel, for the Old World charm of early New York City and the golden era of cross-country train travel when dining cars had “plush velvet” seats and sleeping cars “silken sheets.” The wonderment and romanticizing of the Old West is here too.  

In the backdrop of the early twentieth century is also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that put horribly inadequate working conditions in the spotlight , the suffragette movement, and “wildcat” oil fever in Texas, where the author lives.      

A number of other colorful characters play pivotal roles, menacing and benevolent. They’re in the novel’s three settings: Manhattan, upstate New York, and Dallas. Texas is depicted as a “shotgun city” and a lovely place of blue-bonnet wildflowers with the space to breathe and determine one’s destiny.

“Risk takers and rule breakers, dreamers and sinners and independent souls with their own moral code” create a unique, satisfying ride.


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The Rose Code

How three female friendships and WWII codebreaking changed history (Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England; 1939 to 1947): Kate Quinn has done it again! How does she keep up the pace, writing three big, thrilling historical spy novels every two years?

The Rose Code, her newest, features a different type of spy craft than her earlier two on-the-ground female spy novels (The Huntress and The Alice Network, mini-review incorporated here). Set at Bletchley Park, England’s top-secret codebreaking center governed by the UK’s Official Secrets Act, it first became public in the late 1970s, then opened as a museum in 1994.

Having now read over 1600 pages of Quinn’s three WWII/I novels, I’m confident to say this “life-long history buff” is a master at crafting gutsy female characters in gutsy prose, inspired by real unsung heroines, consistently bringing fascinating, little-known history so alive it’s like watching a thrilling spy movie.

The Rose Code is the longest, clocking in at over 600 pages. Using the word clock applies to three contexts, starting with a plot that’s a race against the clock of war, breaking encrypted German codes (also Italian and Japanese) to save lives and win the war. In a dozen illuminating pages of Author Notes, we learn of the real spies her invented female characters are based on, and of men they worked for and with, some they fell in love with.

Try to wrap your head inside a cryptoanalyst’s mind having to break codes when there’s “150 million million million” possible combinations! Granted, they were aided by three codebreaking machines – Enigma (below left), Typex (below top right), and Bombe (below bottom right) – but much relied on educated guesses, pattern/puzzle solving, and mind-numbing hours, months, and years at it. (Photos via Wikimedia Commons – Enigma: public domain, Typex: by ArnoldReinhold [CC BY-SA 4.0], Bombe: by User Messybeast on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0].)

The complexity of these machines and codebreaking is excellently described. Still, visualizing may be helpful:

“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women. The kind that sit safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any condition … even in evil,” is a quote from The Alice Network that establishes Quinn’s mission for all three of her novels to spotlight historic, strong-willed, brave women committed to a “moral purpose.”

Three distinct women from different backgrounds become the unlikeliest of friends when they work at the sprawling “red-brick Victorian with a green roof,” especially at buildings called Huts. Each numbered, each operating like separate silos where no one knew what the other groups were working on. Where “all just see one piece of the puzzle.” Secrecy was paramount, breaking it treasonous.

Bletchley Park Mansion by DeFacto [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, these women stand out as all were civilians whereas most BP women were snatched from Britain’s naval, air, and auxiliary army services. Still in the minority as the majority were men plucked from Oxford and Cambridge universities disciplined in mathematics, physics, linguistics, as well as chess players and WWI codebreakers.

The women’s stories add richly-layered storylines on the pressures of war and love. The author imagines complicated romances, inspired by a real one, offering delicious escapes for the toiling cryptologists and the reader.

Each woman had her own reason for wanting to prove herself. Each a specific skill befitting her assignment:

Mab: secretarial schooling lands her in Hut 6, the Decoding Room, using the Typex machine to “punch coded messages” for translation into German, mostly.

Osla: fluent in German (and other languages), she’s assigned to Hut 4, the Naval Station, where a string of five-letter nonsensical messages are translated into “plain-texts.”

Beth: a crackerjack crossword puzzler finds herself working for fictional and real Dilly Knox, who applied an “Alice-in-Wonderland” creative thinking approach to deciphering jabberwocky sentences.

A bit more about the women’s stories and codebreaking work:

Osla’s flirtatiousness and wit dazzles. She provides another version of the clock theme: a countdown, told in alternating chapters and time periods, that tracks how many days left until the royal wedding in 1947. A date that ended her five-year, mostly long-distance affair told through letters with young, dashing naval lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, cousin of Lord Mountbatten – Osla’s cousin too, which is how they met. When Philip’s distant cousin Lilibeth made it known she wanted to marry him and make him a prince they parted ways. Fictional Canadian socialite Osla sparkles like Philip’s real Osla Benning girlfriend, a Canadian actress who sparkled too.

Osla’s prose is “Mayfair Slang,” from living in London’s swanky Mayfair neighborhood, Knightsbridge. Determined to change her “silly deb” image, she has a sassy “romantic tosh” way of “making a muff of things.” Things get serious in the naval station when her sworn-to-secrecy oath is tested.

Mab comes from London’s East End working-class neighborhood, Shoreditch, so her prose is “East Ender slang” like saying Bletchley Park’s motto is “you dinnae need to know.” Ambitious and independent, she’s determined to make herself into a lady. A shopgirl at London’s luxury department store Selfridges, she represents women “from all walks of life” who had supporting roles as “decoders, filers, and bombe machine operators.” At Hut 6, she meets a quiet, remote poet and codebreaker named Francis Gray based on two real poet codebreakers. Gray turns her story romantic and dangerous. At six foot tall, she’s reassigned to Hut 8, where the famous mathematician Alan Turing invented the taller, ear-splitting bombe machine that streamlined codebreaking exponentially. Turing makes an appearance, but he’s  intentionally kept in the background.

The two women teach Beth what genuine friendship mean. They encourage her to work at Bletchley Park because she solves crossword puzzles as if she designed them. “Brainy” like Dilly Knox, “one of the Park’s eccentric geniuses.” Their minds are in sync, which affects their relationship. Beth shows what a mother ill-equipped can do to lowering a girl’s self-esteem, yet when given a chance to excel does, even better than Peggy Rock, the fictionalized and real mathematician codebreaker. Mastery, though, doesn’t come easy. Beth endures a steep, nine-month, nerve-wracking learning curve that drives her nuts.

Madness at this “blinking madhouse” is another recurring theme since “the burden of secrecy took its toll” and “oddballs” were recruited. It also provides a third version of the ticking clock: another countdown revealed in the opening chapter set in the aftermath of WWII. An anonymous codebreaker has been locked up for more than three years at a fictional sanitarium named Clockwell, symbolic of similar institutions that did exist. You’ll figure out who the tortured soul is but not the Park’s traitor, as the clock races dangerously.

Louise de Bettignies via Wikipedia

Spies on-the-ground are what The Alice Network is based on: a real network of WWI female spies. Here another young, charming, determined socialite, Charlie, gets entangled with a reclusive older woman, Eve, who was a spy in the network. Again, alternating timeframes as the two meet after WWII. Charlie rekindles the spy’s revenge against a Nazi-sympathizer who catered to the Germans for profits, meant to embody “profiteers” who sold out to the Germans. The network was founded by fictional Lili, drawn from the real “Queen of Spies” Louise de Bettignies, a “regular modern day Joan of Arc.”

Like Osla, Charlie shines. So does her romance with Eve’s compassionate Scottish driver as another unlikely trio form a powerful, endearing bond in pursuit of truth and justice driving through France in his beloved British Lagonda convertible. Haunting when they uncover a German massacre in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. France left it untouched. A haunting monument to truth.

Oradour-sur-Glane by Davdavlhu [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

As cyberattacks threaten our nation’s security, The Rose Code and a “haunted city” remind us of the heroism, endurance, and imagination Quinn masterly shows us is still a possible combination that can change history.


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Villa of Delirium

What’s ancient Greece doing on the French Riviera? (Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; early to mid-20th century): A fantastical way to reflect on this fantastical historical novel would be to visit the real villa it’s based on: Villa Kérylos.

Short of that, you can take this 3D tour provided by the two-centuries-old Institut de France that owns the Villa, now a museum. You can further pique your interest reading this New York Times article, lavishly photographed. It led me to this sensuous and complex historically imagined novel written by what feels like the only person who could do it justice, Adrien Goetz, a French professor who teaches art history at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He’s also the editor of the Louvre Museum’s magazine, Grande Galerie. (The Louvre, the world’s largest museum, recently digitized their entire 480,000 piece collection online for free.) Goetz also writes for the French newspaper, Figaro. Turns out he’s also an expert on ancient Greece, telling us in A Few Historical Clarifications and Acknowledgements – few as in a dozen packed pages – that he was introduced to this ancient civilization at an early age by an uncle.

Kérylos is the Greek word for halcyon. In the aptly titled first chapter, The Halcyon Terrace, Goetz defines it in poetic and poignant terms: “The halcyon swoops over the waves; it is the bird of sadness, that bird that weeps in poetry.” The novel inspires many interpretations, poetic and poignant certainly. The overarching theme is the Villa’s exotic and eccentric mystique, although it fits the grand scale and grandeur of the French Riviera.

Villa Kérylos by Patrice Semeria [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An unnamed narrator recounts this inventive, fictionalized tale soon after Gustave Eiffel’s landmark Paris Tower opened (Villa Eiffel neighbored Villa Kérylos). Spanning half-a-century, it ends around the time Grace Kelly became the Princess of Monaco in 1956. Which means it takes us through a reawakening to Picasso’s Cubist style, the Belle Époque, and the Nazi’s ransacking of the Villa during WWII as the owner, Théodore Reinach, and his family were Jewish.

Théodore Reinach was an archaeologist obsessed with Greece and making a discovery, a scholar on many other topics, who along with French architect Emmanuel Pontremoli designed and built this “blindingly” white villa perched high up on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in a small village near Cap Ferrat, peninsula of millionaires

Théodore was a member of the Institut de France. The museum hosts yearly conferences, which the author has participated in, speaking volumes as to how much there’s to explore and how much Goetz incorporated into his novel.

The narrator says Théodore was “more famous than a movie star.” Then why has no one written a biography on scholarly Théodore? Goetz surely could.

Expect many references to go over your head, as they did mine. And yet, you can’t put this book down. Goetz’s prose captivates. Soak up as much as you can, as I did. There’s still plenty to fascinate, absorb, and sense. Even if you’re not interested in ancient Greece, like I felt, Goetz wants us to appreciate this classical culture’s numerous, lasting contributions to society and language.

That’s why he starts off with this epigraph quoted from Théodore Reinach, explaining why we should care about ancient Greece: 

“The Greeks discovered glory, they discovered beauty, and they brought to this discovery such jubilation, such an overabundance of life, that a sense of youthful contagion can still be felt even after the passage of three or four thousand years.” 

In Théodore’s eyes, his Greek palace was a symbol of beauty, simplicity, and elegance. The reader will decide if it’s a spectacular feat of genius or madness? Decadence or outrageousness? 

Our wistful, astonished, and forlorn narrator recounts this story in his seventies looking back on his youth, the “master of Kérylos,” culture and history with remarkable detail from his teenage years to the end of his twenties when he “watched this white and ocher house being built, lived here, worked here, fell in love here.” Tutored in “Archaic Greek” by Théodore too. His emotions run the gamut from awe of a brilliant man, idyllic contentment, and to an “absurd labyrinth that now seems grotesque to me.” After he left it, the narrator became a well-known Cubist painter and friends with George Braque, the other founder of this abstract art movement.

Théodore was attracted to the narrator’s youthfulness and friendliness, his Corsican Greek roots, and drawing skills taught to him by Eiffel, whose home he’d grown up in as the son of Eiffel’s cook.

“I still have a set of keys to the house,” the narrator begins. Abandoned at the time, he lets himself inside unnoticed to record fifty years of the Villa’s existence before it’s forgotten. The author got permission to write parts of the novel here, so he knows his way around the way the narrator “knew every room.” Which means he knows the names of every room, each named in Greek, listed at the back of the book. Even the dogs bore Greek names. The library overflowed with books on ancient Greece. The narrator’s memories and musings published as this novel.

Besides Théodore, the focus, his brothers Joseph and Salomon also lived here. All three famous in their own right. Why, then, is this family first becoming known to us?

Two mysteries drove the narrator to document the past. The primary one was to find an “extraordinary object” that belongs to him, hidden from most everyone, but the narrator knows the truth about it. Desperate to find it, assuming the Nazis didn’t get to it first, he searches everywhere taking us through the Villa, its courtyard and rooms that dredge up the pain of not solving the mystery of the disappearance of his first love, Ariadne, a watercolorist and “young Greek woman of my dreams.” Hired by Pontremoli, along with her husband, to paint the Villa from all its perspectives.

Villa Kérylos by Christophe Recoura [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Renaming this pantheon to Greece Villa of Delirium fits the narrator’s mood when he fled delirious with unrequited love. His sadness comes from the fact that he couldn’t have her for keeps, despite now being a married man with children and grandchildren. 

A few words about Joseph and Salomon. Joseph was a politician deeply engaged in the scandalous, anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair. Salomon was director of the National Museum of Antiquities. In the Dictionary of Art Historians, you’ll see his extensive art and archaeology pursuits.

Théodore’s wife, Fanny, fancied the theater. Léon, their son, became a famous musician and composer. (Oikos, the music room.) Fanny was related to the fabulously wealthy Rothschilds, whose eye-popping Villa Ephrussi and gardens are another neighbor, now also a museum.

You’ll be introduced to new vocabularies steeped in Greek architectural, archaeological, and mythological worlds. An English word makes an impression: graphomaniac. Translated it means an obsessive impulse to write, which the three brothers did profusely.

A word about Natasha Lehrer. An award-winning translator, she pursued translation years after a career as an editor and journalist. In 2015, she wisely perceived a greater need for trans-national conversation.

The Villa was “proof that one could travel back in time.” Goetz has done a wildly superb job of letting us time travel.


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My Heart: A Novel

Introspections from a Bosnian war refugee without a country (Washington, DC region; 2010 to roughly 2016): My Heart is unique, so it doesn’t fit neatly into a single literature genre in my opinion, although the publisher makes it clear in the subtitle that it’s a novel. “Autobiographical fiction” to be more specific, stated on the back cover. Fiction inspired as “a consequence of war,” as I expected. But honestly, I didn’t see what aspects of this poignant and tender, sorrowful and beautiful book were fictional once read. It felt like a memoir. I’d love to hear from readers what you thought? Is it a novel or a memoir? Or something else?

The heart in the title and the abstract watercolor on the cover are symbolic of many facets of the heart of a soulful Bosnian writer, just like this multi-faceted book. Physical hearts. Broken hearts. Swollen hearts. A complicated emotional heart that tugs at our hearts as Semezdin Mehmedinović writes from the perspective of a political refugee who still feels like a stranger in a strange land even after living more than twenty years in America. “I’m a foreigner everywhere I go.”

In a moving, three-page introduction written in part, I think, to help define the book’s genre, fellow Bosnian-born author and literary critic Aleksandar Hemon explains the book is autographical only “in the sense that the person in the book is the person who wrote it.” Still, he doesn’t agree it’s a memoir. “Nothing about it is memoiristic or confessional, and certainly never indulgent or self-centered.”

According to this citation, it appears to have been originally published in 2017 edition as Me’med, Red Bandana, and Snowflake, and to have won a prestigious literary prize named for Meša Selimović, born in the author’s same Bosnian hometown, Tuzla, recognizing it as the best novel written in Bosnia. My Heart is conceived of in three segments with the same three titles, each focused on a member of the author’s family: himself, his son Harun, and his wife Sanja.

You might think Mehmedinović’s section is self-centered in the sense that it opens in November 2020 when he’s having a heart attack and fears dying outside of his homeland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the republics of the former Yugoslavia. His heart aches for his beautiful country ravaged by a war considered the worst genocide in Europe since WWII. His heart is also weighed down by disbelief, shock that he’s only fifty having such a traumatic medical event.

Viewed as a memoir, this opening feels more powerful than fiction as it’s based on true experiences, trauma, and emotions of an immigrant long in America, where no one can pronounce his name; where no one knows the language his world revolves around; where no one (except other survivors of an ethnic cleansing war) knows much about what happened except for the horrific images seen on TV of the Siege in Sarajevo. Mehmedinović was living in Sarajevo during the war, fled with his family to America after it ended in 1996.

I think My Heart shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as it’s drawn from the author’s diverse styles of writing: poetry, essays, short stories, journalism. The writing is lyrical, poets are cited; the format feels like a collection of interconnected, real, short stories of isolated people, mixed with cultural commentary and the eye of an outside reporter.

The book is also hard to categorize due to its strong existential bent. The prose often comes across as stream-of-consciousness/dream-like/Zen-like, most prominently in the second segment focused on Harun. The red bandana is an image etched in the writer’s mind and heart as his son Harun wore one when he came to America at thirteen. The family was relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, then moved to northern Virginia outside of Washington, DC. Harun, a photographer, now lives in Flagstaff, ideal for photographing brilliant red rock country. Red Bandana memorializes car trips the two took together when the author got a chance to visit him. (He held a number of meaningful positions for Voice of America, Reuters, elsewhere). “For some reason, all the events connected with this town have the flavor of a dream.” And are crafted that way.

Written as a letter to Harun, this part reads like diary entries accompanied by sketches. A complicated and loving father-son relationship crisscrossing the desert landscape depicting a melancholy man discovering, because of his son, that America has its own share of beauty. Looming, though, is how hard it is to see beauty in a country that still feels foreign to you.

Some might call the sketches “mindfulness drawings.” In one standout scene Harun insists they camp out under the stars in the middle of Monument Valley. That drawing pictures the author meditating opposite otherworldly geological formations sculpted by eons of time and weather. It’s filled in more, darker than others, adding to the impression of how much happiness the author derived journeying with his son.

Monument Valley by Marcela Karner via Pixy

Here is where we especially find the author’s voice looking outside of himself asking beautiful, existential questions. “If life is to be lived, why not do it in beauty?” But you’re also reading about a “weary,” “frightened man” who’s seen the worst of mankind yet wants to be bathed in the simple goodness and beauty of life, “if only people did not complicate it for each other.”

“Why fill our lives with such effort and torment, when we have such a brief and unrepeatable time in this indescribably beautiful world?”

This is the most inventive section, with references to Franz Kafka’s drawings and diaries, and to Salvador Dalí’s surrealist images of melting clocks. My Heart creates its own existential and surrealistic imagery about sizzling heat and time. Dalí’s most famous work is titled The Persistence of Memory. Note that the melting clock in this painting includes a rocky landscape.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí
Photo by Mike Steele via Flickr

“Where does our need to accelerate time come from? “Why are we always in such a hurry to reach the future?”

Memory, forgetfulness, and time are important themes expressed. Photography serves as a theme too, capturing the past so we don’t forget it.

Since Sanja is not present in this section, you might get the wrong impression she’s not loved as profoundly as Mehmedinović loves his son. Nothing could be further from the truth. Snowflake is a testament to her beauty, courage, and fragility.

“Misfortune has reduced us to our essence. And nothing is left of us apart from love.”

Sanja’s tale also starts off with a serious medical event, perhaps also originating from the heart. Two different medical diagnoses, with roles reversed. Both resulting in outcomes affecting their memories.

Written with so much heart, we feel closer to Sanja in the last part. When we learn why she loves two literature classics – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – we connect to her fantasies. “She is drawn to a world that exists in costume drama.” We relate to her dreams because we too want the world to be a kinder, gentler place.

Since the author’s “world is my language,” we appreciate the importance of translated books. Hemon asserts Celia Hawkesworth’s is a “wonderful translation,” letting us know he read the book first in Bosnian, then re-read it in English.

For a writer who didn’t rush time to get to his future, you’ll be happy to know he’s returned to Sarajevo.


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A Matter of Death and Life

Life-affirming, love at first sight (Palo Alto, California; April 2019 – March 2020): Do you believe in love at first sight? Enduring love until death do us part? “Few regrets” in life? If you do, this book is for you. If you don’t, this book is for you.

Expect to be teary-eyed while wrapped in a comforting blanket as two distinguished professors and prolific authors candidly offer “two minds rather than one” as they look back on sixty-five years of a joyful, caring marriage and overflowing, rewarding lives until one is diagnosed with multiple myeloma (“cancer of the plasma cells”) and the other overwrought about losing the “most important person in my life.” One fearing so much of his past will be lost as his soul-mate was at the heart of it all, while also experiencing disturbing memory issues. All triggering “obsessional thinking” and “traumatic repression.”

Unthinkable it would seem for a man who devoted sixty years to psychological healing with devotees all around the world. A pioneering existential psychotherapist who treated countless bereaved clients now fears living as an “independent adult” for the first time in his life. Faced with the “inevitability of death” not unlike all of us when you strip the meaning of life down to its core. “How do we live meaningfully until the very end?” Two graceful people also ask in graceful prose, “How can we gracefully leave this world to the next generation?”

That man is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, Dr. Irvin Yalom. That woman was Dr. Marilyn Yalom, who also had an immense reach and resonance as a Stanford professor of French language, literature, and culture, and a feminist pioneer in women’s studies. Trailblazers in their respective fields.

With four children and eight great-grandchildren, a tight-knit, supportive family, plus an endless list of admirers – students, colleagues, researchers, readers – it’s hard to imagine more loving, fulfilling, good, and generous lives. Their last year together is remarkably life-affirming as each lived with few regrets. Each, though, taking a different perspective on how long to hold on for the other when your dignity is being chipped away with intolerable physical pain and hope dimming by the day.

Among the many themes packed into this short, provocative memoir (222 pages, including two beautiful photos and the poignant cover sketch) is the thorny topic of choosing when to die if it’s legal in your state. California is one of the states that has passed compassionate physician-assistant death with dignity laws, the word suicide rejected.

By a twist of fate, Irvin Yalom is supremely qualified to write about this as he’s known for his ability to counsel through “difficult dialogue.” Including baring his personal feelings, considered part of why he’s been so successful in changing lives. You’ll find Marilyn Yalom equally capable and frank, coming across as more practical-minded compared to his existentialist thinking and struggles with “death anxiety.” Both painfully honest in sharing their “torrent of pain”: hers more physical, his more psychic. Both philosophical as they document the worst year of their lives. She calmer and accepting, he more fearful and denying. Both grateful for all their blessings.

Which explains the emphasis in the title of death before life. And yet, above all else this intimate memoir is a wondrous celebration of two lives, and the grief that comes when their journey together is ending. “Mourning is the price we pay to have the courage to love,” the opening epigraph, speaks to all of us about “living meaningfully.”

“Evanescence” is a lovely word appearing in the title of one of Irvin Yalom’s chapters. It embraces a love story kindled when a fifteen-year-old boy fell in love with a girl about his age in ninth grade. That man is now 88; Marilyn was 87. 

If you haven’t had a reason to become acquainted with Irvin Yalom’s psychotherapeutic work, you may have read one of his “teaching novels.” Spanning forty years, from 1974 to 2015, they include Every Day Gets a Little Closer; Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy; When Nietzsche Wept; Lying on the Couch; Momma and the Meaning of Life; The Schopenhauer Cure; I’m Calling the Police! A Tale of Regression and Recovery; The Spinoza Problem; and Creatures of the Day (

I was personally influenced by Yalom’s landmark textbook, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, as a graduate student at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, where they both were born and raised. (The influence of their East European Jewish parents described with wonderful introspection.) I still recall the third edition’s purple cover and circles at the bottom for its surprisingly eloquent prose for a text, the bible in my group counseling course. The jacket colors have changed over the years; multi-colored with circles everywhere for the sixth edition co-written with Dr. Molyn Leszcz, President of the American Counseling Association, while Irvin Yalom was also writing this memoir.

In the forty-minute TED talk below, How a Life Shape’s a Life’s Work, Leszcz shares the stage with his forty-year old friend and collaborator, an “iconic figure” who “inspired generations of group therapists” on the “human condition.”

It’s “rare for a psychiatric text” to stay in print for so long, says Jeffrey Berman, an English Professor at SUNY Albany who wrote the only book that’s examined the full body of Yalom’s writings, Writing the Talking Cure: Irvin D. Yalom and the Literature of Psychotherapy.

Marilyn Yalom matches her husband’s compassion and slew of admirers, inundated with so many wanting to visit her during this precious time. Having to pace herself not to overtax how much she can extend of herself while she’s in wretched pain and dying.

She too has a long list of published books, including Before the Chess Queen; How the French Invented Love; A History of the Wife; The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship; The History of the Breast; and The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love released in 2018 ( She too was committed to another writing project while writing this memoir: Innocent Witnesses: Childhood Memories of WWII, with an introduction by bestselling author Meg Waite Clayton, whose WWII novel, The Last Train to London was reviewed here: One of their sons, Ben, finished it. (Yes, planning to read it.)

To glimpse Marilyn’s presence, eloquence, and knowledge watch her give a fourteen-minute TED talk on How the Heart Became a Symbol of Love:

That’s what this memoir is: a symbol of love.

In commenting on an art exhibit that recently opened at the New Museum in NYC on Grievance in Art and Mourning in America, Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee asks, “How do you translate mourning into community?” That too is what this memoir is about.

It’s not only a gift for us but for a profoundly grieving widower who discovers the hours he spends completing the memoir over four months brought him solace. Recounting it’s only “120 steps” from his Palo Alto home flooded with memories to his office, he still finds happiness while writing. Marilyn knew he would because writing the memoir together was her idea.


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